Butler flips on state scrutiny in covid inquiry

4 minute read

The AMA welcomes the news that lockdowns etc. are in scope, but says it will not be ‘constrained’ in its submission.

After considerable backlash when the terms of reference for Australia’s covid response inquiry ruled out state decisions, the Health Minister has clarified that measures such as lockdowns, social distancing measures and other public health measures will be investigated.

In September Prime Minister Anthony Albanese announced an independent inquiry into Australia’s response to the pandemic.

With three high-powered women at the helm – former director-general of NSW Health Robyn Kruk, epidemiologist Professor Catherine Bennett and health economist Dr Angela Jackson – the year-long inquiry is promised to deliver recommendations to improve Australia’s response in the event of a future pandemic.

However, widespread controversy arose over the terms of reference excluding “actions taken unilaterally by state and territory governments” during the pandemic.

While the terms of reference remain unchanged, new information on the inquiry’s website notes that the inquiry will investigate “how evidence informed decisions regarding interventions, such as lockdowns”.

The scope description also notes that “the inquiry will consider the roles and responsibilities of the Commonwealth Government, and state and territory governments in managing pandemic responses, the interaction between these tiers of government, and the overall cohesiveness of the joint Australian response”.

For clarity, the review will consider the responses undertaken by the Commonwealth government AND those undertaken jointly by the states and territories, including vaccinations, medical supplies and supply chains, aged care, disability care, mental health support, financial support and assistance for Australians abroad.

On Tuesday, Mr Butler said it would be “extraordinary” to not examine the implications of lockdowns, social distancing rules and other public health measures rolled out by individual states.

While the AMA welcomed the minister’s clarifications, it told TMR that it would not be “constrained by lines on a map”.

“The community deserves the full picture and we need to ensure we look at all the lessons that need to be learned,” a representative said.

Speaking to TMR, Public Health Association of Australia CEO Adjunct Professor Terry Slevin said that while the inquiry’s focus on the national response “made sense”, “jurisdictional powers and responsibilities played an enormously clear role in the response that affected all of us”.

“Of course, the inquiry will have to wrestle with those issues.

“That is a good and welcome thing. And was my expectation from the beginning.”

However, Professor Slevin warned against the inquiry becoming “a score card of which state or territory did worse or better”.

“This exercise should be about learning all we possibly can about our response to covid for the purpose of ensuring we are better prepared when and if a similar situation unfolds in the future,” he said.

“It should focus on how we can improve our public health infrastructure expertise and capacity to help advance and protect the health of current and future generations in our country. And how we can share expertise and intelligence with neighbours near and far.”

Speaking to The Guardian, Ms Kruk, who will chair the investigative panel, concurred that the terms of reference are expansive enough that state and territory measures can be explored but that the focus will be on “the interface between the states and the commonwealth and community partners”.

She added that she was pleased with how the states had engaged with the inquiry so far and that there was no sense of “reluctance” to participate as the process involved interviews and roundtable meetings as opposed to “adversarial” public inquisitions.

“We’ve got to ensure this process looks at the incident as a whole. The early engagement and commitment from states and territories was vital,” she said.

Ms Kruk added that while many groups, including state governments, had already conducted inquiries into their own covid responses, the “missing piece” was their interaction with the commonwealth government.

Communication about the rationale for lockdowns and workforce issues resulting from isolation policies will be central to the review, according to Ms Kruk.

The inquiry report is due to be published by 30 September 2024.

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